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Lebanon's new leaders must reflect the concerns of a young generation

A Lebanese protester waves the national flag in Martyrs' Square, Beirut. Wael Hamzeh / EPA
A Lebanese protester waves the national flag in Martyrs' Square, Beirut. Wael Hamzeh / EPA

With its yacht club, designer stores and multimillion dollar homes, Zaitunay Bay in downtown Beirut epitomises much of what Lebanon’s protesters object to.

To the million-plus demonstrators who have been gathering daily on the streets of Lebanon, its association with Mohammad Safadi, the nominee for prime minister and a majority shareholder in the luxury marina project, is emblematic of the problems that plague the country. Among those issues are the privatisation of public waterfront and the country’s shrinking coastline, which protesters say reflect the corruption that pervades business and politics and prompted them to march on the waterfront a fortnight ago, chanting “Zaitunay is ours”.

This weekend, demonstrators were planning to return to Zaitunay Bay and gathered outside Mr Safadi’s homes in Beirut and his home town of Tripoli, chanting slogans such as: “All of them means all of them – and Safadi is one of them.” The renewed anger comes after caretaker prime minister Saad Hariri met president Michel Aoun and representatives of Iran-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite ally Amal and reached a consensus on Mr Hariri’s replacement. Political parties will be consulted on Monday before Mr Safadi, who has agreed in principle to take up the post, is confirmed as prime minister. Stand-in foreign minister Gebran Bassil said if he does not take up the post, parliament will be locked in “stalemate”.

Mr Safadi has much to prove. At the age of 75, he will have to work hard to show he understands the concerns of a younger generation

He is right in one respect: Lebanon needs strong leadership to steer it out of its current crisis. Its previous government, which resigned on October 29, was only formed after more than 250 days of political wrangling. Indecision and uncertainty have beleaguered the country for too long. The country stands on the cusp of economic collapse, unable to access an $11 billion lifeline promised by donors if it implements tough measures, but paralysed from moving forward with such steps without proper governance.

Schools, universities and banks have been repeatedly disrupted over the past month. Medical supplies are running dangerously low. Petrol stations are running out of fuel after currency caps were introduced, preventing them from importing petrol. Forty per cent of its population are under the age of 25 but many feel hopeless, disenfranchised and voiceless.

It is critical whoever is appointed Lebanon’s new prime minister represents their concerns, works hard to provide opportunities for them and improves their job prospects. The brain drain from Lebanon is indicative of a disconnected youth; they must be given fresh hope by the country’s new leadership.

Mr Safadi has much to prove. At the age of 75, he will have to work hard to show he understands the concerns of a younger generation. Much of the groundswell of resentment aimed at him is because as a billionaire, he is perceived to be a symptom of the vast disparities in income and wealth in society. He has also faced a string of corruption allegations in the past, leading to accusations from protesters that he is in the same league of the ruling class that protesters want removed from power. And as a former minister in some of the departments that have chiefly led Lebanon to this critical point – finance, electricity and water – he will have to prove he can tackle the issues that prevent Lebanon from running smoothly, from frequent power cuts to the downgrading of Lebanon’s banks. He will also have to bridge the sectarianism that continues to split the government.

Critics say appointing Mr Safadi will only widen the rift between the ruling class and protesters, many of whom feel hopeless about the future. The future government of Lebanon should be one that understands their concerns and includes young voices, who can best articulate the needs of a generation whose lives will be affected most by the decisions made today. They cannot be excluded from a conversation that will shape their tomorrows.

Updated: November 16, 2019 08:01 PM

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